UNITED NATIONS Armed men broke into a U.N. outpost in a buffer zone separating Israel and Syria and abducted three U.N military observers, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said Thursday.
Herve Ladsous told a group of reporters that the unarmed observers were held by the Syrian men for about five hours and released unharmed Wednesday morning.
It was the third abduction of U.N. peacekeepers in the tense region since March and underlined again their vulnerability in the spillover of the conflict in Syria, which is now in its third year.
Ladsous called the latest abduction "a very serious incident ... that illustrates the very difficult conditions that now prevail" in and around the area separating Syrian and Israeli forces which is supposed to be free of armed groups.
The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the abduction of the three observers by "a group of anti-government armed elements" who also looted the observation post. In a statement Thursday evening, the council called on all Syrian parties to cooperate with U.N. peacekeepers, ensure their security, and enable them to operate freely.
Ladsous said that early Wednesday morning, a group of unknown unarmed men broke into U.N. Observation Post 52 in the area of separation and abducted three members of Observer Group Golan, which is part of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, known as UNTSO.
They were released unharmed about five hours later and returned safely to the observation post, where they were met by the head of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, known as UNDOF, Ladsous said.
UNTSO, the first U.N. peacekeeping mission, was established in May 1948 to help supervise a truce after an Arab-Israeli war that followed the breakup of Palestine into two states. According to the U.N., its military observers, numbering about 150, have remained in the Middle East to monitor cease-fires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other U.N. peacekeeping operations.
UNDOF was established in May 1974 following intensified firing on the Israel-Syria border after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace. It currently has a little over 1,000 troops.
Ladsous, the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, did not say where the three military observers were from but the media in New Zealand reported that one was a New Zealander.
Ladsous said the U.N. has temporarily adjusted the operational activities of UNDOF "but I believe that implementing the mandate of 1974 remains crucial for the whole region."
The first abduction of 21 Filipino peacekeepers from UNDOF on March 6 was by the Syrian rebel group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which held them for three days. Another group of four Filipino peacekeepers from UNDOF was abducted by the Yarmouk rebels on May 7 and released Sunday.
Ladsous said it wasn't known which Syrian group abducted the three UNTSO observers.
The buffer zone between Syria and Israel had been largely quiet for four decades, but tensions have increased as the conflict in Syria has escalated. One result is that several countries that have contributed troops to UNDOF have pulled out their soldiers.
The Philippine foreign secretary has said he would recommend withdrawing Filipinos from UNDOF but the final decision is up to the president.
Ladsous said the U.N. his trying to keep the remaining troops.
"We are in close contact with the troop contributors with a view to retaining their active support because they are crucial," he said.
A U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement, said about 150 troops from Fiji will replace Japanese and Croatian contingents that left.
Ladsous reiterated that his department is doing contingency planning for a possible U.N. peacekeeping operation in Syria after the fighting ends, working in close consultation with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy.